A conversation tonight about book guilt, the guilty pleasure of reading for pleasure. I suspect this is fairly common among writers, and I myself suffer from it. I have to do so much reading as part of my work - much of it with its own pleasures of course - that reading something simply because I feel like it seems transgressive and wrong. This is particularly the case with novels, since I am not much good at reading a chapter at a time. My tendency is to seize on a novel and devour it, paper, binding and all. That's when it's good. When it is less than good I am seized instead by a kind of fury and I either let it drop or throw it at the wall. I have gone to the trouble of all this guilt for this?! Granted, I rarely throw novels, but they have all too often been known quietly to drop from my hand never to be picked up again.
The idea of seizing the lot at once might very well be one of the problems of being a lyric poet, albeit one of a historical, faintly philosophical, faintly epic, temperament. I want the experience whole, like a poem: something complete at a deep, instinctive glance. At the same time, a single paragraph of a well written novel can detain me for a lot longer than it probably should, to the extent that I cease caring about the fates of the characters. In other words I read it as if it were a poem. Not as something poetic: as a poem. There is the deep glance with all the pleasures of texture, music and ambiguity
Most characters in most novels don't do very much for me, chiefly because I have a shaky grasp of character. I don't quite believe in character as such. I mean in real people too. People are rarely full characters to me. People's characters are an impenetrable other, just as impenetrable as my own character is. People are certainly presences, which is quite a different thing. It may be that characters have to appear in stories to be recognised. The best I can do in terms of story is the bottomless anecdote, in which some incident or other is played out against the white noise of history. History is the sensation of phenomena as echo: presence is phenomenon as haunting.
Characters in the best novels convince me by a kind of permanent believable presence. I can engage with them fully as I can with the presence of other people. The white noise of their own history walks around with them, making a faint, ghostly, buzzing noise that is the equivalent of haunting.
I suspect there are very few people we can feel deep and lasting love for in their absence, maybe only a handful in a lifetime. We feel partly constructed by them. Their construction of us has been careful, loving, furiously passionate, yet calm. What they have wanted to construct is ourselves as we are in their presence. It is, furthermore, how we would have wished to be constructed. Few people in a lifetime can construct us that way. It is good to be constructed. Constructed, that is, as both presence and character.
Maybe that which is desirable in life, in other people, is precisely what is desirable in a book. And vice versa. I must therefore assume that my desire is for that which is complete at a deep instinctive glance. That and the accompanying white noise of history that buzzes in their voices and glows in their bones.